Depending on whom you ask, the question of what most defines the African American community varies. Some will point to strides made toward racial integration. Others will point to the establishment of our own culture, traditions, and institutions that distinguish us from other races. And depending on whom you engage in this debate, most will admit, there are significant cultural and class divisions among African Americans. Creating a sense of community among African Americans is challenging, but imagine attempting this when the prevalent identifier was slavery.
In his book A Nation Within A Nation: Organizing African American Communities Before the Civil War, scholar John Ernest offers an insightful view of how African Americans to establish their identities before the civil war. This is a unique view since most accounts of this time in history focus on how the Civil War changed our status and sense of community. Ernest presents a view of the oft-overlooked organizations that were pushing for the establishment of an African American community well before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ernest, a professor of American literature at West Virginia University, presents a historical account of how five types of social organizations — the church, Masonic lodges, conventions, schools, and the media/press — got their start. He traces how each attempted to meet the unique needs of the African American community.
One of Ernest’s most striking observations is that our forefathers held two key approaches on how the establishment of community should be accomplished. Some believed that African Americans should fight to assimilate into the majority community, and that finding acceptance there was the ultimate measure of progress. Others, smarting from their experiences with severe racism, believed that creating a new community — i.e., a nation within a nation — was the best approach.
What’s fascinating to consider is that the African American is still divided along those lines. What’s more, the tension between those two mindsets still polarizes our community. Those who fight to be accepted among the majority, which in our time is still white Americans, are often accused of being disloyal to their heritage. Those who fight to establish their own culture are often accused of being separatist, or in the most severe cases racists themselves.
Ernest also highlights the painful fact that from our earliest history, oppression was the most common connection among most African Americans. Even free African Americans faced oppression, opposition, and racism. Many of the organizations formed during that time were built on freedom from that oppression.
A Nation Within a Nation, although focused on the past, whispers to our current conditions. What would our culture be like if the oppression of our ancestors was removed from our current community? How would we then define ourselves? This book made me wonder if a common denominator could ever be found for African Americans. It also made me wonder about the efficiency of trying to define ourselves by a single idea.
But don’t expect answers to those questions in this book. Ernest writes the book in true historian style, only presenting information without his personal beliefs. His writing has the density of academia, so this is not a quick read. In my opinion, this is the best approach. So much our history has been interpreted for us by pop culture or presented in snapshots. It’s refreshing to be able to read such rich history without a filter and with all the weightiness it deserves.
I think the most enjoyable aspect of this book is the discussion that has arisen among those in my African American community. This is a topic that needs to be revisited, and A Nation Within a Nation provides a great springboard for beginning that important dialogue.